Confined by a bell jar education, she watches the free readers flourish above.

As a young girl attending a very small school, I wanted to have everyone’s approval. So when report card time came around, and I brought home my little tan card in the manila envelope with my name written on the top (in cursive!), I shared it with my parents proudly. Secretly, I was hoping for a reward like my friends received – quarters and dollars for each high mark. But my parents were public school teachers, so in my house good grades were expected and not a reason to celebrate.  My parents patted me on the head and said “Good job, sweetheart.” One year, I boldly asked for a reward, and my mom brought home a “Wooly Willy,” a magnetic toy she picked up at the pharmacy on the drive home from school.  Though not the desired cash prize, it kept me busy on the long drive from Florida to my grandparent’s house in North Carolina a few days later, and once there I forgot all about my disappointment.

It was then that I got my real reward: the summer reading list. Assigned by the school, the list encompassed roughly 30 books, of which we were expected to read about 6. My mom would put the purple mimeographed list in her big basketweave pocketbook, I would slip on my flip-flops, and we’d head to the Hendersonville Library. I would check out at least 8 books at a time, because we both knew I’d read at least one of them by the end of the day.

I read in our station wagon, on the road to historic battlefields with my dad the history
buff.  I’d read a chapter while waiting for my friends Jody and Susan to help me harvest blackberries from the hedge between our houses. I would even try to sneak a few pages during our marathon clothes shopping sessions, where my mom bought my school wardrobe from the irregulars, dressing me almost as well as the rest of the regular kids at my school. At night, when chasing fireflies and slapping mosquitoes was done, I’d settle down to read on the shag rug while my grandparents watched Wheel of Fortune.
Sailing away on a good story.

Inside each book was another adventure. I read about ancient Mayan culture, colonial New England, and remote Antarctica. I solved mysteries, discovered new worlds, and revealed secret messages. My favorite books were often in series: Encyclopedia Brown, All-of-a-Kind Family, and a colorful collection of books about world cultures. I read everything I could, knowing that I’d find something interesting and new between the pages. And as I read, I grew: taller, stronger, more independent, more me. My family encouraged this, and gave me space to grow. Even my grandmother, who always seemed to be preparing, cooking, or cleaning up from a meal, would step back from the stove to ask me about my books.

Over the course of the summer, the reading list would become wrinkled and marred, as my mom checked off each book completed. Soon we’d begin packing, stuffing our souvenirs from Cherokee and Chimney Mountain in between our shorts and bathing suits. I would save two or three books for reading in the backseat as we drove towards home, and back to another school year.

With a new sense of confidence from my summer adventures, I returned to school with my lunch box and book-bag in hand, eager to learn. I loved my little classroom, the seasonal display on the bulletin board, the worksheets with my name written across the top. But a few weeks later, after being put outside the classroom for speaking out of turn, or being hushed when I asked a too-curious question, and bearing the ridicule of my peers within a teacher’s earshot – I began to fade. Negotiating the classroom and the playground, and understanding what my teachers expected from me behaviorally (not academically) became my focus. By mid-October, my passion for learning on my own was eclipsed by the social intricacies of school, and a returning desire to just fit in.

School was a confining, rigid environment, like a too small bell jar.At school the focus was on competition and achievement of status above all else.  Individuality and creative thinking were stamped out with more and less subtlety – by a disapproving glance from a teacher, or a red “X” on a paper. Our report card grades were a bit ironic – the highly prized O for Outstanding was awarded to students who best followed directions, while the N for Normal was for those who could not excel at towing the line.  I received O’s more and more, as I learned how to tune out the questions in my head, and just provide the expected answers.

But deep down inside, there was a little revolutionary part of me that said, “This is not right.” As I tried so hard each day to fit in, I knew back home waiting for me was a little stack of books next to my bedside, and at some point in the day, even if it was just for 5 precious minutes, I would retreat to the world where I could be free. And wait for summer to return.

Year later, after moving on to a large public school, attending summer camp, and having my first job, I was able to look back on that time and see it for what it was: the beginnings of my real education – about the world, life, and who I was going to be.  I was discovering then what became the foundation of my adult opinions about education: learning is about more than the text or information. A supportive, nurturing climate can make a tremendous difference. And sometimes, being given space to explore on one’s own can be enough.Learning can be an adventure, if the right supports and environment are there.

Now an educator, myself, I still focus on those values. My students are encouraged to use their own experiences to inform their learning, and take space to make their own discoveries. If they find a special interest in a story or technology, I encourage them to explore it more deeply. At the same time, I work to build cohesion in the classroom, so that competitive spirits are channeled positively towards group successes. Whether my students work together and learn how to make a video, or write a poem on their own, above all else I want them to feel pride in their work, and enjoy the process of discovery.

As a little girl with a mimeographed book list, I understood the pleasure of learning new things. It was better than a Wooly Willy, or any number of O’s on my report card. I now see the precious value of that experience, and hope I can pass it on, like a good book, to the next young learner.


2 Comments

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